NEWS | Feb. 1, 2017

Partners Colorado and Jordan explore military women’s evolving leadership roles

By Lt. Col. Elena M O'Bryan Colorado National Guard

Recent Department of Defense initiatives, such as more maternity leave, have sought to make the military an even more family-friendly employer.  Military families must still juggle childcare and other issues with deployment, training, physical fitness tests, and professional military education requirements.  Now more military specialties – such as Infantry, Armor and Special Forces – are opening to female service members, further impacting military families. 

While women serving in the U.S. military can share their experiences with each other, they rarely have the chance to compare notes with women from other countries serving in their armed forces.

The National Guard’s State Partnership Program, or SPP, provides this opportunity through women’s leadership exchanges between partner nations. 

The SPP connects a state or territory’s National Guard with a partner nation’s military to grow an enduring, mutually beneficial relationship.  More than one-third of the world’s nations have a United States SPP partner.  Jordan and Colorado have been SPP partners since 2004, and this critical partnership is the sole SPP within the Levant region of U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility.

“We are privileged and honored to be your partner,” Air Force Maj. Gen. H. Michael Edwards, adjutant general of Colorado, said to a group of female Jordan Armed Forces-Arab Army soldiers and airmen when they visited Colorado in May.  “I always talk about Jordan being the island of hope in the Middle East.  The Amman Message needs to spread throughout the world.”

The Amman Message expresses the true nature of Islam – a religion espousing peace – as agreed upon by Sunni, Shia, and Ibadhi scholars, under the leadership of King Abdullah II of Jordan.

While in Colorado May 15-22, 2016, the JAF delegation flew to the Colorado Army National Guard High-Altitude Aviation Training Site in Gypsum, Colo.  The flight marked the first time that any of the JAF soldiers and airmen had flown in a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter.  One of the women said that she had undergone private pilot training.

Later on during the exchange, participants held a roundtable to discuss what it’s like for women who serve.  Both the Colorado National Guard Soldiers and Airmen and their Jordanian counterparts found much common ground.

“They do the same things that we do: balancing family and work and children,” CONG Joint Staff Director of Personnel Air Force Lt. Col. Elizabeth Kelpis said. 

“The women take pride in serving in the military.  They love their country.  They do a great job defending their country.  They train so hard.  They take such pride in what they do.”

The JAF soldiers and airmen said that they spend a lot of time practicing on the shooting range back in Jordan.

During her visit to Jordan Aug. 18-26, Kelpis observed JAF female soldiers conducting an aerial rappel.

“They are capable of so much and demonstrated this during the exchange,” she said.

The percentage of women in the JAF is nearing five percent, and their numbers are growing.  They have deployed for peacekeeping missions and combat operations.  All-female units in the JAF exist.  A Royal Jordanian Air Force member just became its first female pilot candidate.  Once Second Lieutenant Lara Al Hawawsheh, currently in the U.S., completes her specialized English language and initial pilot training training, she will be the first of six Jordanian female pilots trained in the U.S. to fly Black Hawks.  This training is part of U.S. assistance under the Counter-Terrorism Partnership Fund, through which the RJAF will receive 12 Black Hawks to enhance Jordan’s Quick Reaction Force and boost border security.    

The role of women in the COARNG, likewise, is changing.  Its first female infantry officer, 2nd Lt. Wednesday Nelson, just graduated from Infantry school and will assume a platoon leader position in the 1st Battalion, 157th Infantry Regiment (Mountain).  The COARNG just selected its first female noncommissioned officer for a line Infantry position.  U.S. Army Sgt. Dakota Demers departs for school during 2017.

“I strongly believe the standard is already set; we need to embrace it,” Demers said.  “I want to do just as good of a job, if not better.”

“I think it’s interesting to see how other cultures are evolving to include women in their military forces and the differences between the way we do it and the way they do it,” U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Elisa Locke, a civilian teacher serving in the COARNG, who pilots the Black Hawk.  “The differences are due to different values and cultures.”

COARNG Director of Personnel U.S. Army Col. Kimberly Lund, who has been to Jordan twice for SPP exchanges, said that she sees them as a developmental opportunity.

“If you take one of the Soldiers and Airmen and expose them to these exchanges, it fosters growth,” she said.

“We learn from them, and they learn from us,” Kelpis said. 

Kelpis also said that the women’s leadership exchanges are valuable because they foster enduring friendships and the exchange of ideas and that each exchange builds on the last.

“You’re not starting from scratch every time,” she said.

The CONG and the JAF will conduct two more SPP women’s leadership exchanges during 2017.